How can indie booksellers survive in an Amazon-dominated landscape?
Monographer writes: We are pleased to publish another contribution to our occasional series of guest posts. Today’s post is by Katheryn Rivas, who writes on the topics of online university (www.onlineuniversities.com). She welcomes your comments at her email Id: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are in the bookselling or publishing business, you are no doubt at least marginally sick and tired of the ongoing conversation regarding Amazon, the supposed bête noir of bookstores and book-lovers everywhere. Of course, there’s no denying the fact that the books-and-other-stuff selling behemoth that is Amazon has employed a model designed to discourage consumers from buying from independent bookstores, sometimes in obviously unsavory ways.
Still, Amazon offers what most indie booksellers, a quickly dying breed, simply can’t—an efficient shopping process, digital alternatives to print, and often drastically lower prices. At a time when the average family’s disposable income is dwindling, should not Amazon and others of its kind be lauded for offering the consumer such easy and affordable access to books? In an incendiary critique of independent bookstores, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo makes this point exactly—that independent bookstores, as they operate now, essentially deserve their fate.
But those of us who enjoy browsing books within the walls of a local, independent bookstore know that there is something of the indie store that is worth preserving, something that extends beyond mere nostalgia. But to secure this preservation, there is no doubt that bookstores must change the way they do business. Here are a few possibilities.
Publishing own titles and becoming truly local
One criticism Manjoo mounts against indies is their dubious claims to community. Manjoo explains:
There is little that’s ‘local’ about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan.
Traditionally, a book’s production-to-consumption chain has involved several parties—authors, publishers, printers, distributors, and booksellers. Now, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from giant retailers and each other, indie bookstores have begun publishing their own titles in what Salon.com calls “…the literary equivalent of the locavore movement. It not only emphasizes local writers, and local subjects, but also asks residents to support a local business with their dollars.
Expanding children’s sections
Even if the demand for e-books has increased for adults, a recent New York Times article noted that parents still prefer print books for their children. The article notes:
Children’s books are also a bright spot for brick-and-mortar bookstores, since parents often want to flip through an entire book before buying it, something they usually cannot do with e-book browsing. A study commissioned by HarperCollins in 2010 found that books bought for 3- to 7-year-olds were frequently discovered at a local bookstore — 38 percent of the time.
This presents indie bookstores with an opportunity to market to parents who consider browsing with their children an indispensable part of spending time with family and discovering new books.
Emphasizing the experiential value of physical bookstores
If indie booksellers are to survive, they must not try to compete with giant retailers like Amazon. That is to say, they do not have the resources to do what Amazon does, so they must offer an alternative that Amazon and others can’t—and that’s the experience of going to a bookstore. Organizing a vibrant local author reading series, hosting book clubs for children and adults alike, and developing interesting staff recommendations that are uniquely human and not algorithmically solipsistic are all different ways that independent bookstores can capitalize on the bookstore experience.
Stocking used books in addition to new books
As the saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In many ways, all priorities take a back seat to the number one priority of cost. Independent bookstores cannot support themselves by offering the rock-bottom prices on new books that Amazon does. But they can offer cheaper alternatives—used books—to appeal to the customer who is primarily driven by discounts. Offering books with lower prices will, if anything, bring in more new customers, many of whom may become loyal patrons in the future.
In the final analysis, independent bookstores will and always have had to scrape to get by. No one, after all, enters the bookselling business solely for the sake of profit. But now, the stakes are higher and business-as-usual is drastically changing. Bookstores must either refashion themselves to remain relevant or else face extinction.